I had flooded my dorm room with books during my first year at University. They tended to pile up on the shelves that had come with the room, and it wasn’t difficult to spot the odd one or two lurking beside my bed.
Sitting in that room during January, I had been engaged in conversation with a new boyfriend at the time and a girl who lived on my floor about historical fiction novels. University had been the first time I met others who loved to read. I had never had that experience prior, so I had been thrilled at the fact others brought books with them to their lecture halls and spent time in between discussion groups reading at the on-campus Starbucks.
The conversation had drifted from books featuring the French Revolution and the vikings, before I announced my desire to pick up a copy of the Outlander Series. For months, my social media had been flooded with excitement for the upcoming television adaptation. I hadn’t known much about the series at that point, other than the minimal facts that it was set in Scotland and time travel was a central element to the plot.
The girl I was with was quick to inform me that Outlander was erotica. Instantly, I had felt red hot embarrassment having said that in front of the boy I had recently started seeing. Coming from a conservative background, the concept of sex seemed completely forbidden.
I had always considered myself a serious reader, and in my first year of university, I had felt an intense desire to engage with serious pieces of literature. I spent my evenings reading Russian literature by the light of my lamp, and carried around a copy of The Bell Jar that I had kept checking out of the school library again and again. In high school I had nearly drowned myself in copies of John Green novels and was suddenly determined to nose dive into the classics.
I had come from a small town and felt something akin to elitism for the quantity of books that I read. Summer reading competitions were a sport I took to eagerly, stealing first place again and again. On my first day of class at University, I was judged by a boy in my department for not having brought a collection of non-fiction history books, which was often the center of conversation during the minutes between lectures. I had felt an intense pressure to adapt and overcome, plowing through classics and trying to create my own ‘great novel’. You cannot be a serious reader if what you are reading isn’t serious, is what the universe seemed to have been screaming at me.
The erotica genre was the one area of the nearby bookstore that I did not drift through. At the time, the Fifty Shades series had run rampantly unchecked over the shelves and all I could remember were the middle-aged women I worked with at my high school job who poured themselves over those dark blue books, fanning themselves with napkins in the break room. They seemed unimaginable, strange creatures who slipped these books in and out of their purses on the bus and at parks, bending back pages with pure enjoyment.
It was hard to take the Fifty Shades trilogy seriously. With the Twilight disaster origin story, clunky writing, and the way it wrapped up emotional abuse with flimsy sexy packaging while trying to sell a faulty view of the BDSM community- it was a nightmare. One that managed to span three movies full of wooden acting, tense dialogue, and a general mess.
Erotica books all seemed to bleed into the Fifty Shades franchise, and the genre had grown big in 2014. At the time, it seemed that a girl could either like or dislike erotica, and that in itself was a label. Sex and the female body has often existed as a taboo subject, depending on the gender of the speaker, and shame is often wrapped up into the subject. Women are sexualized frequently, but the moment they try to own their sexual identity, they face intense scrutiny.
I had been scandalized at the time in regards to the Outlander books. I never touched a copy until four years after that moment. It wasn’t until Netflix was determined that I would enjoy the adaptation, that I jumped headlong into the massive books.
My ‘Recommended For You’ list was constantly filled with period pieces due to my frequent re-watching of Call the Midwife and Land Girls. It was easy enough to pretend that I was studying for my History classes by flipping through these episodes again and again until I had enough of the dialogue memorized so I could rewrite scenes in the margins of my school notebooks.
I had watched the first episode out of curiosity. It was December and cold outside, and it had seemed harmless enough watching the first episode. It wasn’t like buying a book and committing oneself to it.
The first episode turned into the second, and then the third. Soon enough I had gone out and bought the first two novels to take home to my parents for the Christmas break, devouring them by the fireplace late at night when my family had gone to bed.
I tend to hate the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’. I’m fantastic at judging. This was a skill I developed over the years of indecisive customers trying to place orders and feeling a competitive streak gnaw at my bones. I am very quick to judge, and my prior thoughts on Outlander were that of plot drenched in female-in-distress themes and would be an endless trek of tedious plot points. That the series would have gone against my firm feminist beliefs and that it would be nothing more than a feeble attempt at cobbling together some historical accuracies.
I was completely and absolutely wrong about the Outlander series. If anything, it served as a feminist anthem and it isn’t praised nearly enough for the content that it covers.
A rough summary of the first novel follows Claire Randall from 1945 when she is swept back in time to Scottish 1743, where she is suddenly thrown into a world without any control. Separated from her husband Frank Randall, she comes to rely on her friendship and eventual love interest, Jamie Fraser. The story eventually expands to take on France, the Caribbean Islands, and North America, as well as the concept of freedom of choice.
The Outlander series is simply massive. Originally, Diana Gabaldon had set out to write a traditional historical fiction novel for practice and chose 18th century Scotland as her primary setting. Gabaldon eventually adapted the plot to hold onto science fiction elements due to the time travel aspects of the story lines, allowing the author to establish a modern woman. However, the publishers had initially attempted to market the series within the romance genre, content with drowning the books in a sea of Harlequin romance novels, with their red spines and cover images of cowboys.
To be marketed as romance was a point of contention between Gabaldon and the publisher. In order for her book to be taken seriously and have an opportunity at gaining high level reviews, it had to be marketed as something other than romance. After arguing for the science fiction elements within the story, it eventually became established as general fiction, and Gabaldon kept writing, expanding the universe by creating new characters and infusing different historical events into the Outlander landscape.
What makes Outlander complex and unusual to both the romance and the general fiction genres is the ability to tackle real world issues that often go by unmentioned, especially within a historical time setting. Most books and television shows fail to account for the male victims of sexual assault, but Gabaldon does not shy away from this issue. When Claire’s love interest Jamie is raped by Black Jack Randall --the primary villain in the first and second book--, he is traumatized. It takes a lengthy period of time to heal from being raped and having power stripped away.
There is no easy fix for recovery, other than both time and healthy conversations between Jamie and Claire.
“I was far gone by then; so far that I didna even feel much pain— I was just terribly tired, and everything seemed far away and not very real.”
We rarely talk about male recovery from rape, even as we live in the #NoMore movement period. Everyday we rally around victimized women and yet we still fail to ensure than men also have a platform to tell their testimonies from. The rape that Jamie experiences is part of his story, but it never defines his character.
On the opposite side, we also fail to account for the women who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having served as a trauma nurse during the Second World War, Claire underwent a series of flashbacks during the preparation for the Battle of Culloden. Often, period pieces focus on the war veterans who suffer silently from the mental burden of their experiences as a soldier. Women had a massive role in both World Wars but we never truly account for their experiences.
Outlander manages to encompass this issue, while including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in a woman, and also providing a subtle look into the treatment of Indigenous peoples in North America. Historical fiction often strives to create historical accuracy when creating a narrative, but Outlander has the unique ability to open conversation up about these subjects by having a modern woman viewing these different elements.
What drew me most to the series is how Claire is presented as a woman. Often in pop culture, women are categorized as either the Madonna or the whore. Instead, Claire maintains her identity as a woman who owns her sexuality, but is also clever and skilled, becoming a valuable person because of her history in the medical field. As a woman suddenly launched into a patriarchal based society, Claire maintains a strong lead.
The sex elements to the story are an important element to Outlander due to the emphasis on consent and female pleasure. Whether in the 1900s or the 1700s, Claire is able to initiate sex as she chooses, and is not slut-shamed for her prior experience. Nothing is sexier than a healthy conversation about sex and full consent.
"Does it bother you that I'm not a virgin?" He hesitated a moment before answering.
"Well, no," he said slowly, "so long as it doesna bother you that I am." He grinned at my drop-jawed expression, and backed toward the door.
"Reckon one of us should know what they're doing," he said.
It is hard to find a well-rounded female character in literature who is competent and has agency. They tend to become exhausted beneath the demands of society. Claire, instead, acts against society. This is shown frequently over the series, such as the time she did not consent to being punished by Jamie’s hand, claiming that it was sadistic and intolerable.
By refusing the consent to aggressive behaviours, she instead demands for healthy conversation to find solutions, which is a relief from the constant narrative being tossed towards media consumers. Toxic domestic patterns continue to exist, even in a modern time frame, and there is so much baggage that comes with those issues.
“Sometimes our best action result in things that are most regrettable.”
One of the biggest issues in pop culture, is that consent is stripped from romance plots. Men stalk women as romantic endeavors. A no means try harder. Women are slut-shamed based off of their reputation and previous sexual relationships. Outlander strives to move against this hapless trend by showing the positive impact that consensual relationships have, all while letting a woman orgasm on television. (A rarity, bless this show).
“I want you, Claire,” he half-whispers. “I want you so much I can scarcely breathe. Will you have me?”
She kisses him again, and half-whispers back: “Yes, I’ll have you.”
The sex scenes exist within the realm of Outlander. They run rampantly over the pages, but they’re actually good. Focusing on the pleasure of the woman, they tend to help solidify the healthy relationship between couples. The real sin is how easily the series tends to be boxed up within the erotica genre for daring to drift into these scenes. So many shows focus on male gratification and do not equal out, such as Game of Thrones, which infuses violence into sex while blurring the lines between consensual sex and not-consensual. Outlander is almost revolutionary, waving a flag that promotes the female orgasm and enjoyment.
It is increasingly difficult to engage in open conversations about sex. Men often feel the need to grow defensive in the wake of so many movements that have grown in size. Some are just uneducated and dangerous for their lack of understanding. I once dated a boy briefly who told me that he had engaged in sexual intercourse with his previous girlfriend when she was passed out drunk at a party, because she hadn’t said no. Plenty of women have their pockets full of stories about being objectified and losing agency over their own bodies, but most of these stories remain unheard.
Outlander seems to be creating a massive platform generating conversation around the topic of consent. In university, this is a topic that should be discussed frequently, because clearly we haven’t been talking enough.
I used to be unwilling to confirm that I was a feminist when in conversation with men. It was such a negative label that had the power to transform my body into a seemingly wild-eyed, bra burning woman, instead of someone who wanted equality. One of the biggest misconceptions about feminism, is that it is often portrayed as an unfair advantage against men, despite the fact that it aims to create an equal space for everyone.
Claire’s character is an example of this difficult concept due to her unfair advantage of being from the future. While existing as a modern woman does not make her a feminist, the choices she makes while surviving the Scottish Highlands do. Having a thorough medical understanding of germs and sanitary conditions, she is already lengths ahead of the time period’s healing procedures. By combining herbalism with her knowledge, she is able to fluidly adapt to the needs of the people while saving lives.
Another supposed advantage that she has is having married a historian in her own time period. Her relationship with Frank Randall allows her to construct a rough road map of the events that will slowly unravel over the 1740s. This often grants her a seat at the table, but it also ensures that her voice is being heard as an equal one. A counterargument to this, however, would be that she can do very little to change future events. Most of the second book is her dedicating her life to prevent a battle, but yet fails in the end.
At most, these advantages seem to strictly even out the playing field. As an English woman who is suddenly dropped in the middle of the Scottish Highlands and is woefully unprepared, she uses her knowledge to navigate her way to safety. Without resources, she is trapped in a patriarchal landscape and is at a severe disadvantage.
There is also a danger to these benefits. Sprung into a witch trial during the first book, she is being convicted by an unjust justice system and struggles to maintain her innocence. Due to her alien status within the community, she is suddenly a victim and the villain. This acts almost as a parallel to modern day court cases that manage to attack victimized women. There is no security in being from the future. In fact, it often acts as a hindrance. Claire can do very little to change major events, and she has no support network to fall back on.
It can be great, taking on the identity as a feminist, until you have somehow managed to make a man feel insecure by default, and it often unleashes a tirade of expectations and negative feelings. There isn’t much of an advantage marching for equality during January in Canada, but yet, it is still seen as an attack, and it just generates an endless cycle of “I’m not a feminist, but…” (We all like equal pay and access to safe health care, just like men, weirdly enough).
Outlander manages to accomplish plenty while representing a unique relationship between Jamie and Claire, revealing the maturation between the couple as they reach their middle-aged years. I spent most of grade eight and nine watching Golden Girls with my mother, fixated on the thriving lives that the fictional elderly women were living. Golden Girls was immensely radical for managing to tackle sex lives during their silver age, while hooking into other topics like sexual assault, ageism, and homophobia. There aren’t many radical shows left on North American television, so thankfully Outlander is helping to fill out the massive footprints left behind by the classical darling, Golden Girls.
“Don't be afraid. There's the two of us now.”
Shame often accompanies sex and women. Women are taught to preserve their bodies but are somehow still sexualized, which is a bizarre combination that runs rampant across media and news. This encourages the abundance of problematic relationships, fictional and not.
The erotica genre is judged because it is aimed at women, which makes it frivolous reading. Plenty of contemporary fiction is categorized as ‘chic lit’ and ‘beach reads'‘, demeaning the the content beneath this label. Everyone loves applauding Playboy for encouraging the topic of male satisfaction, but Playgirl is a completely different story.
Outlander is massive. Hopscotching neatly across the globe, it is not shy. Peeling back the dismissive label of erotica reveals a serious collection of writing that is still ongoing. It provides voices for both men and women, while also managing to apply sensitivity to topics. When is the last time any other series even attempted to tackle these issues?
I’ve stopped caring so much what I read, but more importantly, I’ve stopped caring so much about what other people think about what I read. It isn’t the genre that defines your individuality, but instead the ability to find meaning within text. I also learned the importance of good reading, and that female voices can exist beyond Jane Eyre (while having a lot more agency).
Maybe Gabaldon didn’t intend to establish a massive platform for a variety of different issues. It might have been her intention strictly to create a long arching tale that navigates both time and land. All that matters is that Outlander gives people plenty to talk about.
Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.